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Cross Country Race craft – The start

Your aim should always be to try and win a race but if you can’t, then it should be to run to the limit of your present state of fitness. If you think and act this way you might be beat but not disappointed.

And sometimes it’s not just physical fitness that gets you across the line. Using your intelligence and thinking clearly can be critical and that’s where race craft comes into play.

A cross country race can be split into start, early stages, mid race, closing stages and finish. All these stages have important points to note. Important decisions need to be made at all these stages but the start will set you on a path that will determine what decisions they will be.

I’m going to focus on the start and primarily the speed at which to go out. A fast start means you enter the early stages of the race in a position that you defend or move up slightly from. A slow start you slot in quite some way back from your target position but you move through the field.

The first option, a fast start, gives you a psychological boost and fires up the adrenaline but you have to use this well-earned opportunity and manage your energy to the finish. Overdoing it and running too fast too long can back fire and you will pay the price for the rest of the race slowing to a crawl.  It’s a high risk tactic which takes some practice to perfect suiting an experienced athlete who tend to have a done a good deal of high intensity training. This training helps them know how fast and how long.

The second option, a steady start with a plan to “come through” is less risky but does rely on you effectively spending the energy you did not use at the start. It’s easy to kid yourself your running fast enough. It’s not good enough to merely be going by people, you need to ensure you are going by enough to achieve your objective? A fast start could mean you run out of fuel but just as bad would be starting steady and finishing with energy still to burn.

When running for a team, where points are critical, a steady start can help you react to a team situation. With half a mile to go, your coach might tell you the  team is one point behind the winning team. Having a little energy left in the closing stages would give you the ability to take that crucial place in the race.

Below are some other factors to take into consideration:

1.Size of the race – In some of the bigger races, you may find yourself competing against over 300 runners. In those races a slow start can leave you with a wall of runners to get round at the first turn.

If you are trying to make the top 10 then a fast start will be needed to avoid hitting this wall of runners. You don’t have to get right up there but you need to have the leaders in your sights. Not so critical if you are looking to make the top 100.

  1. Terrain – The most important single factor that leads to success in a race on the day is to know the course. Without knowing where the hills, the fast stretches, where halfway is and where the finish is, how can you possibly run a good well-judged race?
  2. Pen start – A large race often have Team pens where you may be 4th,5th or 7th in the pen. In that situation you be forced to approach the race with a view to coming through.
  3. Rivals – I’m a firm believer in running your own race, but if you have rivals you want to beat then it is worth considering their normal tactics. If they are a runner that goes straight from the gun then you need to be close to them after the start.

Finally, one of the best ways to work out what type of start suits you try different types of starts in some of the early races this season.



Cross Country coach


Cross Country training


Below are some types of training we may be doing over the coming months.Each type of workout works on various aspects of your fitness.



On the track there are other forms of workout but for cross country there are really two types.


Intervals – This involves running several times over a short distance with a recovery period of slow jogging.


Repetition running (Reps)

Similar to intervals  but you run 3 – 6 times over a longer distance eg 800m or a mile at race (or faster) speed with a specified rest eg 3 mins


Types of Runs


Steady/recovery run

This run builds endurance but is not intended to be challenging.If running with another the pace should be easy enough to be able to talk.You can’t train hard everyday.Recovery is essential.



Swedish for speed play.The idea is you run for a certain time eg 30 mins rather than a distance running fast and slow stretches according to (and this is important) the way you feel.These runs can vary from flat out sprints to fast strides and easy jogs.


Kenyan hills

Similar to fartlek involves running round small hilly loop where the hills are at speed and the downhills are at recovery speed.


Tempo run (Time Trials)

A fast run usually faster than race speed but for a shorter distance.If your cross country race is 30 mins long then a tempo run would be 20 mins long.


Fast back

Steady run out turn at halfway and run fast home.



Hard run

Is what it says.This run is like a workout so needs to be treated as such and cannot be done too regularly and during a week where you do not have a race.


Long run

Like the steady run but would involve building this run up to 60 – 70 mins.The benefit of this starts to really kick in after an hour.



Cross Country coach


Summer Training Camp

Track camp pic


Run4fit Tshirts now here for £10. All sizes

Tshirt image

Emperors new shoes…. no he’s barefoot

If you run, then it’s likely you are aware of the emergence of barefoot running and minimalist shoes which have a lower heal and less cushioning. In combination with this there has been a focus on landing on the forefoot rather than the heal to achieve a “better” running action. And working at the UP&RUNNING shop in Sevenoaks  I get a lot of questions about the pro’s and con’s of this more natural and basic approach.

Today we can drive our cars to the Supermarket but early man would have covered huge distances in his pursuit of food and this would have involved tracking and wearing down his quarry before going in for the kill. The body adaptions we have made, like shorter toes, larger stronger glutes and the nuchal ligament (ability to hold our heads steady while moving)  make us well adapted to running and support the view that that early humans were  true long distance runners. We would of course have been barefoot or wearing the simplest of shoes with very little cushioning.

This blogg gives some background to barefoot running, reveals the latest science on the subject and gives my own view so that you make your own decision about whether to move to a minimalist approach to your running.


Research comparing barefoot runners (from the developing world) with those who who wear shoes (from western societies) has shown that barefoot runners tend to  land on their forefoot before their heel strikes in order to cushion the impact. And those who wear shoes are more likely to land heel first as they have the cushion in the shoe to allow it.

Back in the 1970s, Bill Bowerman, one of the two men behind Nike, developed the first cushioned running shoe, the Cortez (pictured below). Bowerman noticed that by having a cushioned shoe the runner can land on their heel and achieve a longer stride.

The cushioned running shoe in combination with his book ” Jogging ”  inspired the jogging boom of the 1970s. The Boston Marathon followed, then our own London Marathon in 1981, and the rest is history.

Nike Cortez

However, although the heel is cushioned by the shoe the foot does still experience abrupt force – critically, more than when barefoot! It is these collisions that are believed to cause overuse injuries. However, currently there is no evidence to say barefoot causes less injury. A possible explanation of what might be going on is revealed by research into how gymnasts land from a vault. This research shows that the foot is constantly looking for information in the split-second it hits the ground. When a softer landing mat was used the force through the body, when hitting the ground, will actually increase as the foot seeks a stable landing. On a harder mat, the foot, on making contact with the ground, will process this information and will work harder and cushion the blow: reducing its impact. This innate ability is programmed in and even a thousand years of wearing shoes will not change it. It could be argued that cushioned shoes simply inhibit the information we process and make it more difficult for our feet to do what they are designed to do.

The first doubts about the need to have a cushioned shoe arose in the 1990s, when research started to reveal that despite all the technological development since the 1970s the rate of injury among runners remained steady. More recently, an in-depth study concluded that there was no evidence that prescribing running shoes based on assessment of foot type offered any protection from overuse injuries.

Doubts have been further fuelled by stories, fact or fiction, that  put Nike at the heart of a conspiracy. One such story is of a routine visit to a top US university track team by two Nike reps who noticed that the best runners on the team were wearing lower spec shoes with less cushioning and support. The the slower runners on the team were wearing Nike’s newest and most expensive shoes. When they queried it with the Head Coach, he revealed  that he had noticed that the more cushioned the shoes the more injuries his athlete seemed to develop and when they wore older lower value shoes they avoided injury. This is believed to be a wakeup call for Nike, who initially viewed it as a threat to their business but before long began to see this as an opportunity and started to look at the viability of a minimalist shoe.

Recently, the popularity of minimalist and barefoot running has increased by interest in the book Born to Run. Written by Christopher McDougall, the book follows his journey to the isolated Copper Canyons in Mexico where he meets the Tarahumara Indians and discovers how they can run huge distances every day in no more than simple sandals, never getting injured. McDougall was himself experiencing chronic foot pain which improved following his move to minimalist running or barefoot running.

All these factors: the research, the hype, the myth and the math have resulted in a sea change which the shoe manufacturers and magazines have all latched onto. More natural running is “in” and this has manifested itself in the growth of minimalist shoes and people trying barefoot and Pose running as well as the explosion of Trail running.

When you read magazine articles about running on your forefoot to reduce shock it all sounds  feasible, but I have reservations. If the objective is it cover the most ground in the shortest time with the least amount of energy then I’m not convinced.  I believe the transformation to a more forward leaning, shorter stride with greater knee flexion is inefficient. Tho attractive and mirrors the form of a person running at speed it lacks the drive phase to necessitate the need for a forefoot strike

I believe that the more we run or do any exercise the more efficient we become as the body makes adaptions and increases in strength. Core and specific increases in body strength can improve efficiency and reduce the risk of injury.

With accurate visual feedback it is surprising how easy it is to change the way you run and the link below shows how quickly it is possible change your foot strike.

Changing your running style to become more efficient should be the objective not changing gait to avoid impact when hitting the ground. If the running gait is more efficient then the result will be less injury. As a young runner I had a problem with my arms. Usually during an 800m I would enter the home straight and my arms would “go”. They would come in tight to my chest and stop driving. My coach put me on a regime of press ups every night before bed and within a month I’d gained the strength to get me to the line without tying up so badly. I started to use my arms in a more effective way.

Changing the way you land on your feet is treating the symptom not the cure and  some runners attempt barefoot running and force themselves to land on their forefoot by planter flexing their ankles. This can contract the calf muscle so that when the person lands, they load through an actively shortened muscle – increasing risk of injury, so sore calf’s are common.

As humans who originally walked barefoot or close to it, there is a strong argument to say that we should return to this,but we have worn shoes for thousands of years and there is no doubt that the foot is highly adaptive and our feet have adapted to shoes. An extreme example is Dancers using ballet shoes to go on pointe.

ballet shoe

Wearing cushioned shoes has weakened our feet so a move to a barefoot approach would strengthen them but care needs to be taken on the path to this point and the path will be beset with potential injuries if care is not taken. Barefoot coaching and Controlled retraining to a forefoot stance is important.

There does not appear to be any evidence yet showing that converting to a barefoot/forefoot stance reduces injury. Given the effect of a life spent wearing shoes and the environment we live in, where hard surfaces prevail, the move to minimalist running must be gradual, structured and carefully monitored.

Written by Darrell Smith

Are you sitting comfortably?

Avoid those back problems by trying not to slouch in chairs at work and at home. Doctors are starting to notice an increase in back problems among children, teenagers and people in their 20s. The laptop and a more sedentary lifestyle encourages you to plop down anywhere bending forward rather than sitting at a table.

Some basic guidelines for sitting. Ensure your feet are on the ground and your ankles are at 90 degrees. Your knees should be very slightly higher than your hips and you should be able to reach your laptop without having to lean forward.   If you have sit all day then try a roll up towel at the base of your back to support you and good luck getting your teenager not to slouch. Also try and get up and walk around at least every 2 hours.


Mental Health week

It’s mental health awareness this week and this year the the theme is mental health and exercise. In one way or another we all struggle with our demons and that can range from be anxious, worried, and stressed to more serious problems. You don’t go through life without experiencing these problems but I have found exercise to really help  – helping me to clear my head, focus my mind and order my thoughts..even in difficult times. It’s been proven that exercise can actually reduce fatigue, make it easier to concentrate and improve brain function.   Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. As well as the above, exercise is very uplifting and there is always a sense of accomplishment after very workout that lifts you and makes you feel good about yourself and what you can achieve.Even after the toughest of my workouts! For further information about Mental Health Awareness week, please click here    Darrell

Feel the force

star-wars-posterIn celebration of “May the 4th be with you” official Star Wars day today…here are some facts about Omega 3, not a planet in the Gamma quadrant but a key nutrient that will help you cross from the dark side of muscle soreness and fatigue to feel the force.

Omega 3s are a key nutrient that counters inflammatory chemicals in our bodies , helping them  to heal and recover faster.Unfortunately we cannot produce this ourselves and instead rely of our food to provide it.

Studies show that Omega 3 promote lung function and are thought to  keep cell membranes flexible and healthy which can improve mood and cognitive function (cleverness!).

One of the problems with the Western diet is that we do not eat a lot of food that contains Omega 3s. We tend to eat more Omega 6 and a high intake of Omega 6 (Veg oil,nuts and processed foods) has been linked with inflammatory conditions  and include heart disease.Studies show that higher blood levels of good Omega 3 can reduce heart disease by a third.

The main animal sourse of Omega 3 is cold water fish but there issues with Mercury that a high fish diet can cause. An alternative non animal source of Omega 3 are Chia seeds. Native to Mexico and eaten for centuries it is used as both a food or medicine. Chia seeds with water were the staple food of Aztec warriors.

Chia seeds are also rich in soluble fibre and when soaked in water and used to make a drink known as chia fresca – “chilly chia.”  is  brewed up by dissolving chia seeds in water with a little sugar and a squirt of lime.

In Chrishophers McDougall’s book “Born to Run” he describes the nutritional content of a  tablespoon of chia as  like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone.

Next time you are passing a health food shop don’t walk by, venture in and ask the dread locked sales person for the shelf where the Chia seeds are. When you find its likely you will already find a runner there as word spreads about these seeds known as “runners food”

Darrell “Luke” Smith

Sevenoaks Rotary 10k

Thanks for those that came out to support me at the Sevenoaks Rotary 10K on Sunday. Its now Thursday and I’m starting to feel normal again.Thought my winning days were over…

2013 Rotary 10k_MG Rotary 10k Rotary Sevenoaks 10k

Taking a rest day..its not the end of the world

According to the Mayan prophecy the world will end at the stroke of midnight this eve marking the conclusion of the 5,125-year “Long Count” Mayan calendar. However to ease at least one burden as you go to bed tonight let me put your mind at rest about taking rest days from your training regime.

When you are deeply into your running and training and its going well its hard to take a rest day. You believe that a rest day will undo all your good work.

However, the reality is that you only start to loose fitness after 10 to 15 days. Remember how hard it was to get in shape, well it takes time to lose it too. After a period of training, rest lets your body adapt to the work and improve. A day off every seven to 14 days restocks glycogen stores, builds strength, and reduces fatigue. Without recovery, adaptation cannot occur fully. Most injuries come from overuse, a day of cross training/circuits, rest, or easy miles can prevent injury.

In fact the only cataclysmic event likely to happen is an injury as you you push your body to destruction. So to avoid doom and gloom of injury listen to the greatest predictor of the future. Your own body and take a rest day.

It could be your last!

For more information about running and fitness visit

Darrell Smith